Molecule Quilts Now For Sale!

After several months in stealth mode, I've decided that, in honor of C&EN (Chemical and Engineering News) doing an article about them, I should really start selling molecule quilts.

The basic idea here is that I've written Mathematica code to automatically create a quilting pattern from any MOL file. (Actually I did that last year, but am only now getting around to commercializing the idea.) I've come up with some dumb and/or funny ideas for molecules you could put on a quilt, but really I can do any sensible molecule just as easily: The code is entirely automated.

I have a page that tells you everything you need to know about molecule quilts, and their very reasonable pricing.

I thermalled a crazy person in the surf!

I was at Ventura beach with my kids yesterday (one of whom just graduated from an online high school, so we had to fly to California). The water was very cold. Like, scream-when-it-hits-your-toes cold. So I was delighted to see that there were a couple of crazy people about to throw themselves into the sea. Naturally I got out the trusty Seek Thermal camera I keep in my pocket at all times!

I think it's really interesting that you can see a reflection of their heat output in the water below them. I guess it's not surprising, given that radiant heat is just light, same as any other kind of light. (Water is opaque to thermal energy in this range of wavelengths, so very sadly one could not see any dolphins or seals swimming underwater. But it is able to reflect a much wider range of wavelengths than it can transmit.)

Another curious thing is that the foam on the crashing waves appears much warmer than the water around it. I'm guessing that the foam is reflecting heat from the land, while the smooth water is reflecting the deep cold of the sky. But there might also be some frictional heating of the water by the crashing action. There is, after all, quite a lot of energy being released by this process, and it's all got to end up as heat.

Me with Chinese Subtitles

When I was in China recently a crew from filmed an interview with me, which has now been posted. I can't embed the video because it's some odd Amazon video player thing I don't understand, so the image below is a link to the page it's on

They recorded a separate section of the interview that was me promoting World Reading Day (April 23rd), which I also can't embed, so here's a link to that page too:

Hopefully these links will keep working, because I don't have the video myself and don't know how to download it or otherwise get a copy....

A Visit to China

Travel matters. I write this on the way home from China, where I spent three days in nearly constant astonishment. 

Astonishment Number One

I learned that, unbeknownst to me at the time, my book The Elements was selected for an honor roughly translated as “One Hundred Excellent Books Recommended to the Youth of the Year 2012 by the General Administration of Press and Publication of the Peoples' Republic of China” (along with nine other Chinese national awards spread over the last few years).

I’m still wrapping my brain around this. I wrote most of The Elements sitting in an overstuffed green chair in my home in Central Illinois, much of the time with my children playing around me. I had hopes for the book, but no real expectations. Here I am just six years later, my children are nearly adults, and my book has been officially selected by the government of the largest country in the world as recommended reading for the precious children of their nation.

I didn’t even intend The Elements to be a children’s book, let alone one that people would encourage kids to read!

This goes double for my two crazy-chemistry-demonstrations books, Mad Science and Mad Science 2 (of which 30% of worldwide sales are in China). I always feel a bit of panic at the thought of some of the things in those books getting into the hands of impressionable youth. But I guess if the General Administration of Press and Publication of the Peoples' Republic of China thinks it’s OK, it must be OK.

Astonishment Number Two

Weiyi (my editor), 杨帆 (Yang Fan, my guide and translator, who also goes by Phoenix Young), me, 吴尔平 (Erping Wu), 刘华栋 (Huadong Liu) and 施凡 (Fan Shi)

Liquid Chlorine

I have fans in China! I knew this in theory, because they’ve sent me email, but it’s different meeting someone who’s traveled a great distance just to see me for a few minutes, and show me some of their own element collection. A collection that exists mainly because they read my book. 

One of them, 杨帆 (pronounced Yang Fan), acted as my guide and translator for my whole time in China, and it was a delight to learn that he has nearly finished his own book about crazy and beautiful chemical demonstrations, which will be published by the same company (Post and Telecommunications Press) that publishes my books in China.

A vial of lithium accidentally broken on the floor of an Apple store in Beijing. Totally worth the whole trip just for this experience.

That’s really wonderful. It’s all well and good that the Chinese like my books in translation, but they should really be writing their own books. Only one of their own can truly speak to their condition. To the extent that my work contributes anything of lasting value, it will be through the efforts of young people like 杨帆.

Of course this is also where the whole influencing-the-youth thing can get a bit scary. I mean, what if he hadn’t read my book? Maybe he would have decided to become a doctor and cured cancer instead of writing a book about chemistry. But I think I’m at peace with that possibility: He might also have decided that some dead end job was a good enough, instead of taking a chance on writing something of his own. His life will go on long after mine, and in its many twists and turns I will be but one small bend.

Astonishment Number Three

Annoyingly I didn't take a single picture of the electronics markets in Beijing, so this is a picture in the wholesale fabric market I also visited, but didn't write about.

The electronic components markets here are even more mind-blowing than the ones in Japan! When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time designing and building circuitry, and I read about a magical marketplace in Tokyo called 秋葉原 (Akihabara). I got to visit it about fifteen years ago, and almost cried at how much it both matched and exceeded my childhood dreams of the place. (Imagine a farmer’s market, except the vegetable stalls all sell capacitors, switches, servo motors, heat sinks, tape-fed surface mount chips, LEDs, connectors, board cameras, housings, and so on and on and on and on.)

Well, the markets in Beijing make 秋葉原 look like a little hole-in-the-wall shop. Floor after floor, building after building, nothing but parts and more parts. A place like this is far more than a market: It is a beacon of creative energy. I can hardly express the joy in walking past such an array of possibilities. Sometimes it is the joy of recognition: I know what that part is, what’s inside it, how it works, what it’s used for and why. Sometimes it’s the greater joy of finding something I didn’t know existed, and working out the unique brilliance of its purpose.

And every one of these hundreds of thousands of different parts is unique, beautiful, and brilliant in its own way. Beautiful mainly because each is so purposeful. Someone worked for years to design it, many more are involved in manufacturing vast numbers of it, and its existence enables the creation of countless new things unimagined by its makers. An electrical component is like a little book that speaks to the authors of our future, whispering stories of new machines.

Just as I worry about misguiding the young, I wonder how my own life might so easily have gone differently if not for a teacher here or there. What if I hadn’t switched from building circuits to studying chemistry and then writing software? What if I was visiting this market not casually for the sheer wonder of it, but as a designer for an aerospace company? It could so easily have been.

But at 50, I’m where I’m at, and I’m going to run with it. So I walked through the market thinking about what might have been, but happy because I knew where I was heading. Quite specifically: I was looking for an LED stall to get some strip lights for the quilting robot I share with my forever-girlfriend Nina. I don’t know where app designing or science writing or robotic stitching is going to take me, but when I look backwards and forwards from here, at least I feel at peace with my choices so far.

Postscript on the subject of China

Let me just say right up front that I am not going to get drawn into any discussion of Chinese politics. I’m talking about people, not government, and, say what you will about their politicians, the Chinese people are deserving of our greatest respect and support in their lives and in the difficult work they have building their country.

This place is the future, no question about it. I can only think that visiting China from America today must be what it was like for someone visiting America from the old world a century ago. At that time there must have existed the same palpable sense of explosive possibility, combined with great present difficulty, in places like Rochester, Dearborn, and Wilmington.

How must it have felt coming from a tired old world to see a place like Henry Ford’s River Rouge, or the vast, dirty, throbbing industries all up and down the East Coast? What a sense of awe and trepidation to watch them spilling poison into the air while they built a new world that was so clearly destined for ascendency?

If you want to know what that feels like, come to China and witness their century in the making.

(If you want a bit more of an opinion about China, you may want to read something that I wrote at the time of the great Sichuan earthquake of 2008, when by chance I was also in China.)


Public Appearance in Beijing

I'm going to be making a public appearance at an Apple Store in Beijing, China next week! Now, I should note for readers of this blog, who probably care mostly about my element and molecule books, that I won't be saying anything about any of those topics. Instead, I will be speaking for about 10 minutes, together with the president of the Juilliard School, about an app that my company Touchpress has developed in cooperation with the music school and with the Juilliard String Quartet (who will, rather remarkably, be performing right there in the store after our presentation).

I can't say much about the app yet because this event is its premier, but once it's out there will be lots of information on the Touchpress website.

If you happen to be in the area, please stop by! I'll be around after I speak if you have questions. The event is at the Apple Store in the China Central Mall at 7PM on Thursday April 2nd. I believe they request that people sign up to attend, and in any case complete details can be found on the Apple Store website.

I thermalled my teeth getting drilled!

I had my teeth drilled this morning and the nice dentist let me point my Seek Thermal camera at the inside of my mouth while she was working. (It snaps on the bottom of an iPhone, and conveniently you can turn it around so it's pointing at you selfie-style.)

I was curious to know if the drill and/or teeth would heat up, and of course they do, rather nicely. You can see how the whole area around where she is working is colder than the rest of my mouth: They are spraying water the whole time, in part to clear debris, but also to cool the tool and tooth. (According to my patient and accommodating dentist, it's bad to let the tooth get too hot as this can damage the nerve, and dental technique has improved over the years to reduce this problem.)

Without further ado, here is my tooth getting drilled, shown in infrared! For reference, the body of the drill is on the right with the spinning bit pointing towards the left. You're looking for the bright flashes and trails of hot yellow embedded in a field of cool blue. Those flashes are the frictional heat generated by the high speed drill removing bits of my tooth.

It looks to me like there are some streaks going towards the left that may be hot debris, ground-up tooth, being flung out by the drill.

This next one shows nicely how the drill itself gets hot at the same time that it's heating up the tooth. Notice the thin, bright line going from the tooth to the tool and lasting for a fraction of a second after the drilling stops. That's the drill.

Oh, and if you're one of those people who complain about vertical video, *you* try taking video of yourself while two people are in your mouth with power tools. I had enough trouble finding an angle where I could see anything without blocking the view of the person who could at any moment slip and drill out my tonsils.

Periodic Table Quilts for Sale!

Sort of! Due to unexpectedly rapid built up of demand (i.e. a few people asked if they could buy one), I've put up a crude ordering page for periodic table quilts. It's missing some important things, like pictures of the quilts on a bed, but if you already know you want one (and you do, don't you?) it's there.

Since I am currently waiting to get on a plane to London we won't actually be able to ship any until I get back on March 2nd, but order now to get in at the head of the line. (Production capacity is about two per day.)

Coolest Thermal Ever! Proof that Quilting is Hot!

Quilting is widely known as one of the hottest hobbies around, with supermodels and buff young men falling over each other to get to their sewing machines. But did you know that it's literally hot? Since getting my thermal camera a few days ago (see previous blog post) by far the most amazing thing I've seen is this video of our quilting robot in action. It is stitching the Selenium square on a periodic table quilt (see future blog post).

What you're seeing is the sewing head (the boxy thing moving around in the upper half of the frame) putting stitches down into the fabric and batting stack near the bottom of the frame. First it futzes around for a while making small letters, then it goes much faster making big letters, and leaving a totally unmistakable glowing trail. That glow is showing the heat generated by the friction of the needle against the fabric and thick batting, which persists for 5-10 seconds, long enough to see the shape of whole letters. You can tell that there's no visible-light contribution to the image (i.e. you're not seeing the thread at all) because towards the end of the video the early parts are completely invisible. You are seeing heat and only heat.

I really had no idea that there would be that much localized heat generated simply by stitching! Quantitatively, immediately after stitching the fabric seems to be about 10F (5C) degrees hotter than the surrounding fabric.

For reference, here is a normal visible-light video, framed about the same, of the next square (bromine) being stitched.